“You can’t distinguish from reading the dialogue of what a poor, urban kid in the seventh grade wants to do when he or she grows up from what a more affluent kid wants to be―except that they get pushed down divergent roads: one to no opportunity and one to a lot of opportunity,” Dr. Irwin Redlener told journalist Bob Herbert in an interview last month.
The pediatrician, who will be the recipient of this year’s Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, firmly believes that comprehensive healthcare is key to helping poor children escape poverty’s grip. “For these children, health care is a foot in the door to the future,” he once said. “If we give them a shot at being happy and healthy while they’re young, we give them the opportunity to realize their potential as adults.”
Leveling the playing for poor children by ensuring their health isn’t just a matter of being fair, Dr. Redlener told Herbert. It’s also a way to ensure the health of our nation. “We’re going to need every single child to grow up a success story,” he said, “and if they don’t they become a liability. And we’re going to be facing a big problem with competitiveness for influence, economics, and so forth in our world in the next 15 or 20 years. I think the least we could do is make sure our children grow up getting opportunity and fulfilling their potential, and that’s really what’s been driving me for a very long time.”
A very long time, indeed. In 1971, Dr. Redlener was a pediatric resident at University of Colorado Medical Center when he saw an ad seeking VISTA physicians to serve in Lee, Arkansas, which was then one of the poorest regions of the country. A week later, he traveled to that rural enclave and was shocked by the extreme poverty in which the children of Lee County lived―and with almost no medical care.
Dr. Redlener promptly abandoned his plan to become a pediatric cardiologist―along with a pediatric cardiology fellowship he was due to begin―and joined the ranks of VISTA. He spent two years treating patients at a clinic in Lee, launching a career that has taken him to the most impoverished and chaotic places in the U.S. and abroad in the service of his mission to secure better futures for the world’s neediest children.
We’re thrilled that Dr. Redlener will be our afternoon keynote speaker at this year’s Schweitzer Leadership Conference on Saturday, Nov. 7 at the Waterfront Renaissance Hotel in Boston. We’re also proud to be honoring him with the 2014 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism at a special ceremony on Nov. 7. The award is given annually to an individual whose life example has significantly mitigated the social determinants of health in the U.S. and/or abroad, and whose commitment to service influences and inspires others.
Among his many achievements in pediatric care, Dr. Redlener founded Children’s Health Fund (CHF) in 1987 with music legend Paul Simon. The organization operates a fleet of 50 state-of-the-art mobile pediatric clinics that serve the poorest areas in 22 states and advocates nationally on policy issues related to pediatric public health.
CHF resulted from Simon’s desire to address domestic children’s health issues after supporting famine relief efforts in Africa through the star-studded charity USA for Africa, where Dr. Redlener served as medical director. In 1986 they toured New York City’s Martinique Hotel, which at the time was a squalid motel where hundreds of homeless families were warehoused with little access to food or basic healthcare. Both were horrified by the conditions in which the children of the shelter were forced to live. Redlener came up with the idea of the mobile pediatric clinic after that. As he told Hofstra Magazine, “We figured if we couldn’t get the children to the doctor, we’d bring the doctors to the children, like that country doctor making a house call, but now with the whole clinic stuffed into his black bag.” About a year after the pediatrician and the musician toured the Martinique, the first clinic―financed by Simon and designed by Dr. Redlener’s wife Karen―rolled onto the streets of New York. Dr. Redlener still serves as the organization’s president.
You may also know Dr. Redlener from his many media appearances as an expert on disaster preparedness and the effects of disasters on child health. The author of Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now and the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Dr. Redlener has appeared The Daily Show and Charlie Rose. His 2008 TED Talk on how to survive a nuclear attack has been viewed more than a half million times. Unafraid to speak his mind, Fast Company magazine described Dr. Redlener as “a combination of kindly family doctor, political animal, and aggressive entrepreneur.”
Join us and hear the insights and ideas this compassionate and passionate leader in the field of pediatric and public health has to share with us.
In addition to hearing from Dr. Redlener, the Schweitzer Leadership Conference offers networking opportunities with some of the most innovative minds currently working in the areas of health care, public policy and social justice.
Topics we’ll be exploring at this year’s Leadership Conference include:
• models of care for vulnerable elders
• confronting stereotypes of black males and violence
• understanding the effect of trauma on young children
• organizing to actively partner with communities to improve public health
The conference is filling up quickly, so register here and we’ll see you in November!